Friday, September 26, 2008

Rethinking Digital Design: Data-Driven Behavioral Design

For years I’ve been telling people that the advertising medium with the most in common with digital was... are your ready?... Outdoor. I usually get dumbfounded, blank looks when I tell this to people.

Let me explain. Outdoor, at it’s best, is contextual and experiential. Well executed outdoor, leveraging it’s unique aspects, connects to the mind of the viewer and recognizes the setting of the exchange.

It may have been difficult for people to see the mindset parallels between the two a few years ago but it should be becoming more and more obvious. As data becomes unchained from desktop and laptop computers and computing becomes embedded in all types of objects and contexts, the need to take a behavioral and experiential approach to the design of interactions and messaging becomes increasingly important.

Design 1.0 to 2.0
I spent the dot-com years at 2 of the “Fast 5” e-consultancies, web development shops modeled after traditional business consultancies and IBM’s technology practice. The work we did fell into 2 main categories: large, web presences for Fortune 100 companies and application design.

What drove the thinking behind the design and architecture of web experiences at the time was the commonly accepted belief that the goal was to “own” a space or category by building the end-all and be-all destination online. These large feature and content rich sites often lacked strategic focus and clear understandings of peoples behavior and goals online. They were big shaggy dogs (“Where's the head? Where's the tail?”).

In the early dot-com days, I had more than one client that wanted to go so far as to have sports scores and weather reports on their sites. The reasoning was that if these things were popularly sought items of information online, "why not feature them on our site"?

What many clients naively failed to realize was how far outside their competency, even when it was categorically consistent with their business, operating a content-rich website was. My question was always "do you really want to be in the publishing business?"

It wasn't as if they didn't have massive challenges to overcome that were core to their businesses. Building useful and properly designed experiences to service existing clients was tough enough given issues around legacy system's integration, poor content management system implementation, and grappling with poorly designed 3rd party tools that had limited flexibility for customization.

Although technology may be more complex now, this may have been the most complex time to be working in the interactive digital space. On the majority of projects, we were doing things that had never been done before.

Skill-set integration was also a huge hurdle. The diversity of backgrounds was astounding: visual design, information architecture, business strategy, front-end technologists, project management, engineering, as well as vertical “industry expertise”, all trying to work together in a fledgling industry. It’s natural for people to see things from the perspective of their own expertise and frame of reference. At the time there simply weren’t enough people who could integrate the spokes into a wheel. This is still a problem for many organizations trying to work in the space .

In January of 1999 I read a piece that Brian Eno wrote for Wired called
The Revenge of the Intuitive. In it he describes how music studio equipment had become overraught with features in an effort to make them capable of a broad range of possible uses. In the end, this approach is self-defeating. An excerpt:

The trouble begins with a design philosophy that equates "more options" with "greater freedom." Designers struggle endlessly with a problem that is almost nonexistent for users: "How do we pack the maximum number of options into the minimum space and price?" In my experience, the instruments and tools that endure (because they are loved by their users) have limited options.

Software options proliferate extremely easily, too easily in fact, because too many options create tools that can't ever be used intuitively. Intuitive actions confine the detail work to a dedicated part of the brain, leaving the rest of one's mind free to respond with attention and sensitivity to the changing texture of the moment. With tools, we crave intimacy. This appetite for emotional resonance explains why users - when given a choice - prefer deep rapport over endless options. You can't have a relationship with a device whose limits are unknown to you, because without limits it keeps becoming something else.

I saw a lot of parallels between what Eno described and the design approach common in the interactive space at the time, an approach that borrowed heavily from the software industry's development model. In many ways these processes are a direct reflection of the personalities of the people who developed and use them. Classic nerds whose primary strength is abstract reasoning. They enjoy thinking about and making things that are complicated.

More behaviorally targeted design approaches seek a closer level of intimacy with human processes, mental and physical. The idea is to get outside of abstract modeling and actually talk to people and observe their behaviors, to take the deign process from the studio to the streets. A form of ethnography known as “contextual inquiry”, the observation of behavioral process in their naturally occurring environment, is incredibly useful towards these ends.

As useful as ethnography and contextual inquiry can be, clients were usually unwilling to provide the time or money necessary to include it as part of the design process. This was endlessly frustrating given the number of redesigns of painfully flawed sites we were engaged to fix. There was never time and money to do it right but there was always time and money to do it over.

People always seem certain that they know what needs to be designed. Rarely does this is turn out to be the case. Our ability to predict what will be useful, how things will be used and what will be successful is devastatingly bad. The history of technology is one story after another of innovation arising from accidental discovery, user misuse and hacking.

Gall's Law: "A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. The inverse proposition also appears to be true: A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system."

Rapid prototyping is another excellent way to get beyond abstract reasoning and into direct experience. The prototypes might be based on conceptualized models but they allow you to quickly develop something that can be touched and interacted with and hence get feedback on how well it actually performs. The quicker you can witness behavioral interaction the better.

The brilliance of Apple software design has often been in its courage to mercilessly reduce the number of features to those necessary for an average user to accomplish the most common tasks and to build interfaces of radical simplicity. iMovie is an outstanding example of this. You literally did not need any instruction to use the 1.0 version. Up until that point, video editing had been a complex activity requiring expensive, specialized software and tools. Premier, was the de facto desktop video editing software for years. It was ugly and needlessly complex for what it did. It was over-piled with features and it left it up to the user, irregardless their skill level or task-at-hand, to struggle through and figure out how to use the software to accomplish their goals.

The Web 2.0 Framework
The trends described by the term Web 2.0 were a move away from a web design approach that saw as its goal the building of large, feature and content rich destinations. towards the building of platforms of user participation.

The obvious examples:

Wikipedia, the open-source encyclopedia that leverages the “wisdom of crowds” is powered by the many people that contribute to it. It becomes better (more useful and valuable) as more and more people use it.

Digg doesn’t actually store any of the content people share links to, vote on and comment about. Its value is created by its community of users and content that exists elsewhere. In a very real sense the content of Digg is participation and behavior.

Mobile and Embedded Computing
The excitement and fanfare surrounding Apple’s iPhone has brought the promise of mobile computing into the public spotlight. Less obvious, but equally important is the embedding of computing into the objects of everyday life (refrigerators, cars, outdoor advertising, tennis shoes, point-of-purchase displays, retail environments, etc). The intersection of data, people and “things” by mobile and embedded computing is going to transform the patterns of daily life. How phenomenally powerful this is should not to be underestimated.

Mobile and embedded computing further propel design towards the creation of solutions that are contextual and behavioral. The size of devices and bandwidth of mobile computing aren’t shortcomings, they’re blessing. By focusing attention on smaller and more specific challenges the results will be smarter and realized more quickly. The forced discipline will be a healthy education for people working in design and communication.

The ubiquitous access of data and computing power present both challenges and opportunities for the advertising and marketing industries.

“Advertising is what you do when you can't go door-to-door” is an early definition I once came across of the industry that pioneered mass communication. Advertising developed in response to the need to market the mass produced goods that were coming online after the industrial revolution. On a very basic level, people needed to be told that all these wonderful new things existed and what they did.

We now live in a hyper-consumer society where most of the things that are offered up for consumption aren’t really needed in the strict sense and the number of competing products in an given category is staggering.

The interconnectedness of individuals and their access to information diminish the need and erode the power and effectiveness of traditional print and television advertising. Consumers now actively and effectively share information about their experiences with brands and products and access to information (performance, ingredients, reviews, etc) is at everyones fingertips at all times.

Minneapolis based Zeus Jones describes what they do as “Marketing as Service” and strive to use “marketing as a chance to do things for people, not an excuse to say things to them”. The fact that a traditional (most of the examples they show are not digital) marketing shop has chosen this approach is a direct response to the need for marketing and advertising need to find new roles if they are going to remain relevant. Marketing as Service, mobile and embedded all seek to create value by engaging people in the moments of their lives.

The merging of data driven app design and branded experiences brings with it challenges, and like the early days of the web design skill set integration is a going to be a big challenge. Advertising agencies have always been better at big idea thinking and storytelling but next-generation digital experiences will require out of the box thinking, skills and discipline that come from an application development background. Most traditional agencies have little respect for technology culture. They’ve struggled, with few successes, in embracing and incorporating digital 1.0 into the mix of their offerings. On the other hand, shops focused on web and application development tend to produce work that is less than daring and imaginative. It will be interesting to see who will be able to integrate the best parts of both of these worlds and take advantage of the next level of social and technological shifts. It very may well be neither and a new new kind of startup model will emerge.

In addiction to the conscious and unconscious moves toward what I call data-driven behavioral design is a larger trend of examining the patterns and forces at work in everyday life and people as they really behave. Recent titles that are a part of this include:

I believe that this blurred area, the intersection of data, branded experiences and application design is the sweet spot.

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell
Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath
Buying In by Rob Walker
Predictable Irrational by Dan Ariely
Freakonomics by Steven Levitt

The other force that will further propel the trend I’ve described in this piece is the information that we leave behind in the form of behavioral data when we use technology. The ability to parse, understand and use this data is starting to get serious. I will write more about this in the future, for now check out “The Numerati” by Stephen Baker.


cyetain said...

Nice article... I suggest to read up on Agile and especially Scrum. They would both support your desired processes from a technical and creative perspective.

I am having great luck with it down here, addressing many of the concerns you point out.

Loved the Eno article too.

Thomas Sherman said...


Thanks for reading.

What kind of work do you do?

Will def check out Agile and Scrum. I do a lot less of this kind of work than I used to. Are they widely adopted in the software dev world?

Minneapolis Web Design said...

We would be able to get anything done without sticking to Scrum!